Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is the God of Christians the God of Muslims Too?

Back in November and in response to a letter by some 100 Muslim leaders, the New York Times published a letter drafted by the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School, and signed by 100+ Christian signatores. The letter called for Christian cooperation with Muslims. Among the signatores of that letter was the President of Wheaton College and other school officials. Well, it’s now being reported that Wheaton’s president and the other Wheaton officials have removed their names from the letter. I’m interested in the reasons offered by the President for removing his name. Here’s what he says:

“The statement was not carefully enough crafted to avoid encouraging that basic premise of civil religion; i.e., that we are all worshipping the same God,” Litfin said. “As a matter of principle over the years, I have made it a point to avoid becoming complicit in this cultural premise, denying as it does the unique claims of Christ.”

Huh? The God of Christians is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. The God of Muslims is the God of Abraham. Seems to me Christians, Jews and Muslims do in fact worship the same God. Now depending on which of these monotheistic faiths you embrace will determine which of them you believe either has some false beliefs about that God, too few true beliefs about that God or just too many beliefs about that God.

That Christians and Muslims have throughout history taken themselves to be worshipping the same God is evidenced in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, where he attempts to refute the beliefs of a prominent Muslim philosopher, Averose; but Thomas’ refutation doesn’t proceed by simply pointing out that Averose is in fact speaking of a different God. QED. No, he proceeds by trying to show that what Averose says about God is false.

Suppose you and I are discussing Tom Cruise. We discuss his marriage to what’s her name (what’s her name?.....right, Katie Holmes…had to google that one), we discuss his commitment to scientology, his role in the spectacularly gripping film Magnolia, and his early performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Who is it we’re talking about? Who is it we’re referring to in our discussion? We’re talking about or referring to Tom Cruise, of course. But, suppose I point that Tom Cruise was not in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And suppose you insist he was and that you really enjoyed him in that film. Seems to me we are in fact talking about and referring to Tom Cruise but you have at least one false belief about him. You believe he was in FBDO. You’re mistaken, however, because it was Matthew Broderick who starred in FBDO, not Tom Cruise. But notice: it’s not Matthew Broderick that we’re talking about, it’s Tom Cruise we’re talking about. And you are attributing to Tom Cruise something that’s not true of him.

Likewise, the fact that Christians, Jews and Muslims say different things about God does not entail that it is different gods about whom they say things. President Litfin is mistaken if he thinks that from the fact that Christians and Muslims have different beliefs about God it follows that they worship different gods. And for the life of me I can’t understand why he would think that acknowledging that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is to deny the unique claims of Christ. It isn’t. I believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Muslims don’t. I think they’re mistaken. They think I’m mistaken. How is this disagreement logically connected to the claim that we worship the same God? It’s not.

Let me go out on a limb here and make a conjecture. I conjecture that what really happened is that the President caved under pressure from Wheaton’s contributors. I bet that big dollars were threatened to be pulled if his name and the names of the other Wheaton officials did not come off that letter. If he in fact succumbed to such pressures or even felt such pressure, I’d like to know. At the very least, let’s be clear about this: no one must deny the unique claims of Christ by acknowledging that Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God. To think otherwise is to be ignorant both of history and of logic. I think we should expect better from a Christian college president.

12 comments:

J said...

I tend to agree with your point, but I think it's a bit off-target. I think what is usually meant by saying they worship different Gods, is that even though both claim to worship the same God, one of them understands that God to be COMPLETELY different than the other.

I think it's more of a shortcut usage to say they are worshiping different Gods. It's simpler to say "we worship different Gods," than it is to say "we both claim to worship the same God, but you have such a completely FALSE view of that God that we might as well be worshiping different Gods."

There's also the argument that the Koran was an amalgam of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hanifism, with a sprinkling of Sabean practices. Muhammad started the core of Islam based on his visions, but a great number of other influences came in too, especially in the hundred or so years following his death.

This would sort of support the idea that the Gods being worshiped truly are different, even if some of the backstory is used over.

Either way, meh.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Correction. Though Thomas no doubt thought that he and Averose spoke of the same God in just the same way that his Five Ways are arguments to the existence of (in his words) what everyone understands to be God (even pagans and heretics), his refutation of Averose I think had more to do with knowledge than with beliefs about God. I could have made my point better, I think, by referring to Paul's words to the people at the Aereopagus in Acts 17. Upon seeing an altar to an unknown God Paul said: "what you worship in ignorance, I proclaim to you." The altar, in other words, was to God although the people knew little of God. So what the people worshiped in ignorance (i.e., God) Paul was going to proclaim to them. Anyway, Thomas scholars who read this blog can correct me further if need be.

Anonymous said...

Using the phrase 'the same God' seems to need so much nuance. On the one had it is true that both religions are monotheistic and grow out of the Patriarchs and also share the understanding of many of the attributes of God (including those which relate to the 5 ways) so from that stand-point surely do worship 'the same God' and can find close connections with Muslims on that point.
On the other hand understanding God in Trinity, as revealed through his word and his Word Christ is central to my (and a general Christian) understanding/view of who God is, so from that perspective we certainly do not worship 'the same God' to the point at which they may see it as offensive to speak of God this way.
This conversation can be connected to conversations with Jews as well, though it is different in that Christianity grew out of God's work through the Jewish people, whereas Islam arose later.
Interesting topic though. I know when I speak with the Imams I work with the issue of God in Trinity and the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection is often the elephant in the room if not the topic of conversation.
Oh, also, I remember speaking with my group about the issue of God and suffering and realizing that I seemed to have more in common with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests and the Muslim Imams than I did with many other protestants.
William

Kevin Corcoran said...

J:

I think that when evangelicals say that the Gods of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are different Gods they don't think of it as shorthand for we both claim to worship the same God, but you have such a completely FALSE view of that God that we might as well be worshiping different Gods. Seems to me that's a very generous (too generous?) reading of what's going on. I wish it were true, what you say. But I fear it's not.

Wm:

understanding God as Trinity, as revealed through his word and most centrally through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is indeed central to Christian faith and to understanding who God is. Muslims believe none of that. My point is that to the extent that they believe the denials of those claims they have false beliefs about God. I just want to claim that from the standpoint of the object of their beliefs, who they refer to with the name Allah--who it is they pray to and worship--that being is God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

It's like me having an experience of William Jensen--i.e., you--meeting you and talking to you, and then going off and telling people I met William Jensen, you know, the guy who teaches astronomy at Princeton, lives in NJ and has a summer home in the south of France. None of those things are true of you. Yet it is in fact you that I am speaking of. And if I meet you again and talk to you, ask you questions, etc. it will in fact be you I'm talking to even though I have a treasure trove of false beliefs about you.

btw: I grant that if an object X has the property of being a Trinity
and an object Y lacks that property, then X is not the same as Y, X and Y are not identical. The case that we're discussing however is one of reference, I think. And I just want to maintain that what I refer to with the English word God is what Muslim's refer to with English word Allah. We just have radically different beliefs about that being. Beliefs, btw, that I don't want to minimize or flatten out.

But let's not assert that we have nothing in common either, not even the God we are both reaching out for (and who, more importantly, is reaching out for us).

Anonymous said...

Amen, and that analytical side of your analytic post-modernity is showing through!
I love it!

Kevin Corcoran said...

Anon: (Who are you?) I aim to please. (-:

Keith DeRose said...

There's a story about this in *Christianity Today* that's a *bit* more informative than the one you link to. Since this whole linking-in-comments thing seems to be working for me here, let me again try to provide a link to that CT story.

Keith DeRose said...

I think that when evangelicals say that the Gods of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are different Gods they don't think of it as shorthand for we both claim to worship the same God, but you have such a completely FALSE view of that God that we might as well be worshiping different Gods. Seems to me that's a very generous (too generous?) reading of what's going on.

A possible (& perhaps plausible, at least in some cases) compromise interpretation: They don't clearly distinguish in their own thoughts between the such-great-disagreements-that-we-might as-well... reading and the literally-speaking-of-different-objects reading, and what they say is partly explained by their confounding these two things?

Kevin Corcoran said...

Keith,

I think that's right. Disambiguating those two (first b/w one's own ears and then in public) might actually go some distance toward preventing unnecessary provocation and division/divisiveness.

And thanks for the CT link. That answers my constituency concern.

Kevin

Keith DeRose said...

Suppose you and I are discussing Tom Cruise. We discuss his marriage to what’s her name..., we discuss his commitment to scientology, his role in the spectacularly gripping film Magnolia, and his early performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Who is it we’re talking about? Who is it we’re referring to in our discussion? We’re talking about or referring to Tom Cruise, of course.

I tend to agree with you, Kevin, about your main point about Christians & Muslims. But...

Intuitions change when we suppose somebody (let's say it's me) has more than just a few false beliefs. Suppose that I have Cruise thoroughly confused with Matthew Broderick. I have just one "mental file" (as some philosophers of mind like to put things) here (I think everything in that file is about a single individual), which I associate with the name "Tom Cruise." However, the items in that file are an even mixture of info that has Cruise as its source and stuff that has Broderick as its source. (Perhaps I wonder how this "Tom Cruise" guy manages to be married to both Katie Holmes and Sarah Jessica Parker at the same time?) The fact that the name on my mental file is "Tom Cruise" tilts things toward thinking that the file, and then the individual items in it, have Cruise as their object. (Also potentially important here, when we're discussing what the object is of my spoken assertions about "Tom Cruise" when I'm talking with you, is that I am talking to you, we're using the same name, "Tom Cruise," we take ourselves to be arguing about a single guy named Tom Cruise, and *your* mental file is unambiguously about Tom Cruise.) However, the intuition that I'm talking about & thinking about Tom Cruise is already seriously weakened, and can be weakened still more if we start to suppose, for instance, that more of the important items in my mental file come from Broderick than come from Cruise. As we mix in more & more info that has Broderick as its source, at a certain point, it starts to seem that my beliefs are about Broderick, and I'm mistaken about what his (Broderick's) name is. At a certain point before that, it seems unclear or indeterminate whether my beliefs are about Cruise or about Broderick.

Perhaps some of the "they're not talking about our god!" crowd would say the situation is like the one I just described: Muslims don't just have a false belief scattered about here & there in their "God" files, but have beliefs that are so thoroughly & so importantly mistaken -- if they're taken to be about "our" God -- that it becomes doubtful that they really are determinately referring to that thing.

That's about the best I can do for the thought that, from a Christian perspective, Muslims are not referring to "our" God by their use of "God" (or "Allah"). Ultimately, I'm with you here. Even from a thoroughly Christian perspective, the situation of Muslims is importantly different from the situation I described above, in which I'm very confused about Tom Cruise. Most important, perhaps, is that in the case of Muslims, there isn't another actual individual who is a rival candidate for being the object of their beliefs -- unless one thinks there's a specific demon or something that's the source of many Muslim beliefs about "God," which gets mixed in with their beliefs that really are derived from God. Rather, even from a thoroughly Christian perspective, they have some beliefs in their "God" file that really are traceable to God, mixed in with various false beliefs that are not all traceable to some other individual as their source. It's as if my "Tom Cruise" mental file had a lot of info in it that comes from Cruise, plus a lot of mistaken items that come from a variety of sources (and perhaps also some items that are pure fabrications on my part). Here it does seem that my file & the individual beliefs in it are about Cruise (there are no good alternative candidates), but it has a lot of false information about him in there.

Anonymous said...

How does Frege's distinction b/t sense and reference affect this conversation? Or the distinction b/t denotation and connotation?

Emily said...

I have heard this comment made many times and while I understand the point they are trying to make I, like you, have to disagree with the inherent logic.

I think, perhaps, a better example than your Tom Cruise example would be one that stays within Christianity itself. That is, I, as a Lutheran, have a very different idea of God than my friend does, as a Calvinist. To me, the idea that God would limit his grace to a select few goes against everything I believe about him, arguably 'creating' a "different god".

I could push this further and say that a (Christian) Universalist friend has still another different view of God than I do. They could not picture a god who, after forgiving the entire world and atoning for the sin of all mankind, would then choose to send those who didn't "accept" this forgiveness to hell anyway. Once again, a "different god".

Not to debate any of the three positions themselves, my next question would be to ask exactly how much do I have to believe about God that is true, before I can be said to worship the "right" and "real" God?